You all have seen this commercial, right?
In case you can’t listen to this while you read our blog in your cubicle while you’re supposed to be working (for shame!), I’ll give you a rundown. A chef is lamenting, in song, the effect that Bertolli brand pasta sauce has had on the restaurant business.
I make-a lasagna
I take all day
My tables are empty anyway…
[a cry of rage and despair] Bertolli!
When I saw this commercial, it immediately reminded me of a similar one from a few years back, advertizing Barilla pasta. There’s no video of this one, unfortunately, but I remember the lyrics:
Love is grand
and love is good
but to Italians love is food
Both sets of lyrics are sung to the “Habañera” from George Bizet’s Carmen.
What are these commercials trying to do with this music? Click through, dear reader, click through!
Before we can tackle the music, we need to deal with the more basic question of what the commercials are doing to begin with. It’s a question with a simple answer: they’re trying to sell pasta. More specifically, they’re trying to sell pasta by evoking a certain “Italian-ness.” That’s not particularly strange on the face of it. After all, pasta comes from Italy, and if Americans are going to buy an Italian food product, they’re going to want one that is authenticly Italian.
But of course there’s more to it than that. First, the Italy evoked here is a very specific Italy. It’s not, for instance, the Italy of Rome, The Godfather Part II, or Amarcord (left). It’s the Italy of The Olive Garden: an “Italy” for non-Italians. And what are the attributes of this phantom nation? It’s a place where everybody sings, where passionate (culinary) artists let out cries of grief and rage, where beautiful dusky-skinned women lick ragù alla napoletana from wooden spoons (from the Barilla ad), and where the entire populace is dedicated to the earthy pleasures of cuisine. It’s set up as an idyllic space, but also as fundamentally irrational and anti-modern. It is, in a very particular sense of the word, “Oriental.”
“The Orient,” – and it should be obvious here that I’m talking about the ideological construct, not about an actual place or group of people – is attractive, sexy, magical, and exotic, but fundamentally antagonistic and inferior to the forces of Modernism, Christianity, Patriarchy, and so on down the line. At its core, Orientalism isn’t about the “East” at all, but rather about giving the “West” something to define itself against. So if you’re not white, male, upper-middle-class, Christian-but-not-particularly-observant, heterosexual, healthy, gainfully employed, and from THIS country (whatever this country happens to be), you’re fair game. While Edward Said was only talking about depictions of Asia, we can find the same basic pattern in depictions of any political “other,” including the more “exotic” parts of Europe itself. Spain and Italy get “othered” a LOT. To a certain degree, this might be fallout from the reformation, with Protestant countries using comfortable orientalist slurs to dehumanize the “backward” Catholic nations… whatever the reason, it definitely happens, and you need look no further than the stereotype of the hot blooded and hot tempered Latin Lover for proof. (Notice that the disambiguation page takes you to both Italian and Hispanic actors. This is revealing! It doesn’t really matter what ethnicity your Latin Lover is. He’s the Other, that’s enough.)
This is the archetype through which Bertolli and Barilla attempt to sell their food products. How does the music play into it? First of all, it’s opera. Within the classical music world, interestingly enough, Opera is faintly disreputable, attracting many of the same connotations – excess, mystery, the body – as Said’s “Orient,” and it’s possible that some of that carries over into mainstream representations. Outside of the classical music world, opera codes very strongly as “money, privilege, the elite,” another category that can help you sell things but is fundamentally opposed to the day-to-day lives of the consumer class. Finally, in any American context, its most potent connotation is foreignness. Is it specifically Italian? Well, what matters is that it’s absolutely unamerican. But sure, Italy does have a great operatic tradition, and using opera is a servicable way of evoking the nation. Bizet’s Habañera is perhaps the most instantly recognizable song from the most instantly recognizable opera in the entire repertoire, but it’s not the only one you’ll hear in commercials like this. I know I’ve heard Va Pensiero and O Mio Babbino Caro used to hawk parmesan and tomatoes, although I can’t seem to find the actual ads on youtube.
But what’s really interesting about the particular commercials under consideration here is that the Habañera is not Italian! Bizet was a French composer. His opera, Carmen, is set in Spain (c.f. the “Latin Lover” again), and the character Carmen, who sings the Habañera, is a Gypsy – and a woman – and thus marked even more strongly as different.* (The form her difference takes? She is sexual, irrational, exotic… we’re on familiar ground here.) Now, Bizet didn’t come up with this melody himself. It’s borrowed (i.e. stolen) from a popular Spanish folksong. Bizet used music he thought of as “Spanish” to dramatize Carmen’s difference to his French audience, just as Bertolli is using music we think of as “Italian” to dramatize lasagna’s difference to an audience of American pasta-buyers.
With me so far? There’s another layer. The Habañera folksong that Bizet cribbed from isn’t actually “traditional.” In fact it was written by the Spanish composer Sebastián Iradier. And he was imitating a popular dance genre from the Spanish colony of Cuba (which he had visited), which is where it gets the name “Habañera,” i.e. thing from Havana. Now I’ll come clean: I don’t really know a lot about representations of Cuba in Spanish culture. But can’t you pretty much guess? The queasy relationship that 19th century Europe had with its colonial territories is what prompted Said to write Orientalism in the first place!
Music is famously resistent to any kind of universal interpretation. Even distinctions as seemingly obvious as major=happy/minor=sad are actually subjective: the “meaning” of a series of notes is always the product of the listener’s culture. What fascinates me about these three cultural meanings of the Habañera is that they are so similar, but also mutually exclusive. People who understand that the song comes from a French opera about Spain find it laughable when its used to sell Italian food, and once you know about Iradier’s earlier version, you can’t ever really look at the version in Carmen the same way again. What is Iradier’s Habañera? Cuban? Gypsy? Italian? Or just irreducibly “ethnic”? This last may be the most convincing possibility. Take a look at the Habañera’s melody.
See how it’s based on a descending chromatic scale? Richard Taruskin has demonstrated that, within the context of European classical music, melodies of this type signify “not just the East, but the seductive East that emasculates, enslaves, renders passive,” and (I would add), sells pasta. In 19th century Russia – Taruskin’s specialty – this “East” referred specifically to central Asia. In 21st century America, not so much… but the broader significance of the melody seems not to have changed. It’s probably precisely BECAUSE its association with the exoticized “other” is so generic and poorly defined, that it has adapted so well and survived so long.
None of which changes the fact that watching that commercial made me hungry for Lasagna. Mangiamo!
* The Political Other need not be a political entity, it’s just that the term was cooked up by the kind of people who see all human activity as essentially political. Women get orientalized all the time. (Be on the lookout for arguments that run along these lines: “Women are so much more in touch with their feelings, you see! Men, on the other hand, can do math.”)